Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has won a surprise election victory, putting him on course for a fourth term in office. Netanyahu’s Likud party is poised to control 29 or 30 seats in the 120-member Knesset. The Zionist Union opposition placed second with 24 seats. A united list of Arab parties came in third. Netanyahu closed out his campaign with a vow to oppose a Palestinian state, reneging on his nominal endorsement of a two-state solution in 2009. Netanyahu also vowed to expand the illegal West Bank settlements and issued a last-minute plea to supporters denouncing a high turnout of Arab voters. The Zionist Union, Netanyahu’s chief rival, also ran on a platform for Israel to keep the major Israeli settlement blocs in the occupied West Bank, the home of any future Palestinian state. Likud says Netanyahu intends to form a new government in the coming weeks. Talks are already underway with a number of right-wing parties.
U.S. and Iranian officials are giving differing assessments of the progress of nuclear talks. The head of Iran’s nuclear agency told state media 90 percent of the technical issues involved have been resolved. But speaking in Washington, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said the odds of an agreement are 50-50.
Josh Earnest: "In the mind of the president, the odds have not moved, that we are in a situation where we are — at best, it’s a 50-50 proposition that a deal will be completed before the end of March. There are a couple of reasons for that. The first is, the president is driving a very hard bargain, and Iran is going to have to make some very tough and specific commitments as it relates to resolving the international community’s concerns with their nuclear program, as well as agreeing to a set of extraordinarily intrusive inspections."
Iran, the United States and five world powers are seeking a framework deal by the end of the month, followed by a final agreement in June. The talks continue in Switzerland.
The regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad faces new allegations of atrocities in its bombings of rival-held areas. Amnesty International says regime attacks on Raqqa, the stronghold of Islamic State militants, in November carry "every indication of being war crimes." According to Amnesty, "ruthless air strikes" killed at least 115 civilians, including 14 children. Meanwhile, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says at least 19 people have reportedly been killed in barrel and gas attacks in northwestern Syria. Witnesses say chlorine may have been used. On Tuesday, the U.N. panel investigating Syria’s civil war said it will start sharing the names of Syrian war crimes suspects with states prepared to bring international prosecutions. Briefing the Human Rights Council in Geneva, panel chair Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro said the names would not be made public.
Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro: "We will not be releasing the list of names publicly now. We can best aid the pursuit of justice at this time through targeted disclosure. We will share names and information about specific alleged perpetrators with state prosecution authorities that are preparing cases to be heard before a competent and impartial judiciary. This will be a process that respects human rights, the fair trial rights of the accused, and the right to truth of the victims."
Syrian state media claims Assad’s forces have shot down a U.S. drone. If confirmed, it is the first such downing of a U.S. aircraft since the Obama administration began bombing Islamic State targets in Syria last August.
The International Red Cross has launched an emergency appeal for the South Pacific island nation of Vanuatu following last week’s massive cyclone. The storm reportedly destroyed or damaged 90 percent of buildings in the capital Port Avila. Red Cross official Simon Eccleshall said the impact is still being assessed.
Simon Eccleshall: "Overnight, we have launched an emergency appeal for Vanuatu Tropical Cyclone Pam to the tune of 3.9 million Swiss francs ($3.8 million). The emergency appeal focuses on the provision of food, water, shelter, health, urgently needed non-food relief items. And we can expect this emergency appeal to be revised over the coming days on the basis of the further assessments which are currently being undertaken."
The typhoon left some 3,300 people homeless, but the number is expected to rise as aid workers reach Vanuatu’s outer islands.
House Republicans have unveiled a new budget plan that would cut spending by $5.5 trillion over 10 years. The measure increases military spending by adding $40 billion in "emergency" war funds and slashes at least $1 trillion in funding for social services like food stamps and welfare. The plan also demands Obamacare’s full repeal. Speaking after a St. Patrick’s Day meeting with the Irish prime minister, President Obama criticized the Republican proposals.
President Obama: "I should mention that I was hoping for a little luck of the Irish as the Republicans put forward their budget today. Unfortunately, what we’re seeing right now is a failure to invest in education and infrastructure and research and national defense — all the things that we need to grow, to create jobs, to stay at the forefront of innovation and to keep our country safe. It’s not a budget that reflects the future. It’s not a budget that reflects growth."
Congressional Democrats are opposing new secrecy surrounding the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP. The United States is in talks with 11 [other Pacific Rim] countries for a sweeping trade pact covering 40 percent of the global economy. Its provisions have mostly been kept secret. A briefing is set for lawmakers today in Washington, D.C. But they will not be able to discuss it publicly because the meeting has been deemed "classified." Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut says the White House is being "needlessly secretive," adding: "If the TPP would be as good for American jobs as they claim, there should be nothing to hide." Democratic Rep. Alan Grayson said: "The only purpose of classifying this information is to keep it from the American people."
The head of the Secret Service has appeared before Congress to answer questions over an incident involving two agents who drove drunk into a White House security barricade. The agents allegedly drove through an active investigation, directly next to a suspicious package. While officers at the scene wanted to arrest the agents and administer sobriety tests, a superior ordered their release, without the tests. Questioned by Congressmember Nita Lowey, Secret Service Director Joseph Clancy said he learned of the incident days later.
Rep. Nita Lowey: "This latest episode seems to be more evidence of a cultural issue that has not been adequately addressed by changes in senior management."
Joseph Clancy: "It’s going to take time to change maybe some of this culture. There’s no excuse for this information not to come up the chain. I’m frustrated. I’m very frustrated that we didn’t know about this. I didn’t know about this ’til Monday."
A Republican congressmember has announced his resignation following controversy over lavish use of taxpayer money. Aaron Schock of Illinois spent some $40,000 to redecorate his office in the style of the television drama "Downton Abbey." Schock was also dogged by reports of improprieties in his use of donor-owned private jets and over billing for travel costs.
Missouri has executed a mentally ill and disabled prisoner by lethal injection. Cecil Clayton was missing one-fifth of his frontal lobe as a result of a work accident. Years after the injury, he was arrested for killing a police officer and sentenced to death despite his apparent confusion over the crime. Psychologists concluded Clayton’s execution would violate the Constitution’s ban on executing the insane or intellectually disabled. But the Missouri Supreme Court refused six times to hear the case, and a last-minute appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court failed.
Thousands of people are protesting European austerity polices in a rally today in Frankfurt, Germany. A crowd of around 10,000 people is gathering outside the new headquarters of the European Central Bank. At least two police cars and other property have reportedly been set ablaze after hard-line activists lit fires.
The largest group of Presbyterian churches in the United States has voted to approve same-sex marriage. The decision by the Presbyterian Church (USA) broadens the definition of marriage in the church’s constitution from being between "a man and a woman" to being between "two people, traditionally a man and a woman." Rev. William Blake Spencer, a gay pastor in New Jersey, told The New York Times, "Some of us are calling it liberation day."
Spanish activists and local housing groups have rallied in front of the headquarters of the private equity firm Blackstone Group in New York City to protest its expanding role in the global housing market. Following the global financial crisis, Blackstone has been at the forefront of Wall Street’s housing takeover, becoming the largest owner of single-family rental homes in the United States. Spanish activists are seeking to halt Blackstone’s purchase of the bulk of mortgages from the Spanish bank CatalunyaCaixa, which received a bailout with public funds. They say the sale would paralyze attempts by hundreds of families to negotiate better conditions and avoid eviction. At the end of the protest, the image of a giant vulture and the words "Stop Displacement" and "Blackstone – vulture" were projected onto the front of Blackstone’s Midtown headquarters. Victor Casanova, from Marea Granate New York, said the fight against Blackstone is global.
Victor Casanova: "We think this is a global fight. The Platform for People Affected by Mortgages is doing a lot of work to stop evictions in Spain. There are other organization that are doing similar things in the U.S. And what we want is to bring the protest here. This is the place where decisions that are affecting thousands of families are being taken, and we want to tell the people that are leaving their work right now that we are not allowing these things to happen."